Shell’s Setback Highlights Environmental Risks of Drilling in Arctic Waters
Shell has stopped drilling for oil in the Arctic—for now. After an oil containment system was damaged on Saturday, the company said it was forced to scale back operations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas until next summer. Shell won’t complete any wells this year, but will continue preparatory work this season, drilling “top holes” that will eventually extend into oil-bearing zones.
Energy experts estimate that one million barrels of oil a day could come out of the Alaska’s Arctic seas, about 10 percent of current domestic production. Companies are lining up behind Shell to tap into the rich oil fields. Meanwhile, environmentalists are calling for more data on the effects of offshore drilling on marine life there, and for more protections for the most sensitive areas.
The setback—the latest of many that Shell has encountered in its controversial $4.5 billion endeavor to plumb the rich oil fields in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas—shows just how perilous development in the frigid waters is, say environmental groups.
“After countless promises about how ready they are, the truth is evident for all to see,” says Eric Myers, director of policy for Audubon Alaska. “It’s painfully obvious: Shell is not prepared to drill for oil safely in the Arctic Ocean.”
On Saturday, Shell’s containment barge, the Arctic Challenger, was in Puget Sound, Washington, completing the final trials needed before the Obama administration would give the green light to drill deep enough to reach oil. During the test, the high-tech dome built to contain oil in the event of an underwater spill was damaged.
Noble Discoverer. Photo: Shell
Electrical problems and other issues have plagued the Arctic Challenger for weeks, requiring extensive upgrades to earn U.S. Coast Guard certification. The company has faced other complications: In July, Shell’s drillship Noble Discoverer slipped its moorings in Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, and drifted toward to shore. Last week work in the Chukchi Sea come to a stop when an ice floe 30 miles long and 12 miles wide threatened the vessel.
“Shell’s continued equipment problems showed how really tough it is to develop oil spill prevention and response systems, period, much less ones that will work in such an extreme environment as the Arctic Ocean,” says Marilyn Heiman, director of the Pew Environment Group’s U.S. Arctic Program. Heiman stresses the need for Arctic-specific standards for preventing and responding to an oil spill: “This real-life example of what could go wrong also makes it even more urgent that the Interior Department identify and protect sensitive areas that are crucial for Arctic wildlife or are used by indigenous communities that practice a traditional way of life.”
In 2011, a USGS report found that there are scientific gaps in how energy development on the outer continental shelf will affect wildlife. Conservationists fear that a big spill could devastate the rich array of wildlife the seas support much like the Exxon Valdez spill did in 1989.
The bays, inlets, and river outlets of the Chukchi, for instance, provide breeding, feeding, and staging areas for millions birds, including threatened spectacled eiders, yellow-billed loons, and Kittlitz’s murrelets. To complicate matters, some species are already beset by rising temperatures and dwindling sea ice (Arctic sea ice hit a record low extent this summer). Female walruses and their calves have long hauled out on sea ice, resting before diving back into the icy waters to forage for clams, snails, and other invertebrates on the seafloor; now, they’re increasingly forced to haul out on land, where food may be scarce and young risk being trampled.
“Arctic seas are far too important to the preservation of birds, polar bears and other wildlife to chance an ice-locked, BP-style blowout,” says David Yarnold, Audubon President and CEO. “Science does not support drilling in America’s Arctic Ocean, and neither does common sense. We're going to keep fighting for an ambitious U.S. energy policy and protections that our waters wildlife and future generations desperately need.”
In July a coalition of conservation groups, including Audubon, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Oceana, sued the federal government over its approval of Shell’s oil spill response plans for an Arctic Ocean drilling program. Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director at the CBD, said, “This reprieve for our pristine Arctic Ocean gives the Obama government yet another opportunity to stop drilling operations before they truly get underway.”
At this point, however, the Obama administration is still backing Shell. “Through Shell's efforts, tremendous progress has been made and valuable lessons will be learned as the company carefully and deliberately moves forward with Arctic exploration activities,” says Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. “As part of President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy strategy, we look forward to continuing to work with Shell to maximize the remaining opportunities this drilling season provides while doing so in a manner that expands domestic energy production, creates jobs, protects people, and safeguards our natural resources.”
The lawsuit hasn’t affected drilling this year, Oceana attorney Michael LeVine told the AP, but if the coalition succeeds in getting the approvals set aside, it could prevent drilling in future seasons.